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In Spite of Itself, MIT Musters Its Own Peculiar Spirit

Column by Jenny Lind

The first time I thought about MIT school spirit was at a happy hour when someone at my table started yelling out a peppy cheer that involved something to do with secants, cosines, and pi. My first reaction was to look around and make certain that no one had heard. If someone had, I was prepared to act as if I didn't know these people; I was just sharing their table because the bar was so crowded. Luckily, no one heard.

I think my gut reaction was high school survival training at work. Nerds who drew attention to themselves back then were soon surrounded by chuckling defensive linemen whose idea of college was nine years at the local junior college. Any nerd who would belt out a cheer involving trigonometry was courting disaster. Believe me, I understand these things. I was in band.

It has come to my attention that at MIT people actually yell such cheers out at public sporting events. I guess MIT students feel safe because the taunting jocks have been weeded out by now, but aren't they afraid of anyone? Perhaps a few Sloan School former frat boys? No, I guess grad students have better things to do, and besides, if a Sloan guy wanted to torment you, he'd probably just figure out a way to ruin your credit rating or something. At any rate, I both admire and puzzle about the MIT undergrads' total embrace of their nerdiness.

Because this is my third institution of higher learning, I feel rather qualified to comment on the topic of school spirit. At Berkeley we had all sorts of pagan rituals in our rivalry with Stanfurd. (Not a typo.) There is the pre-"Big Game" bonfire, and there is the parading of the Axe (which is the trophy of the Big Game). There are hacks (although not called that) that involve stealing the Axe from whomever has it at the time, dyeing Berkeley's Strawberry Creek red, or setting loose hundreds of blue-and-gold painted mice on the Stanfurd campus. (Also not a typo. Poor mice.) Anyway, most people go to these schools because of the quality of academics - God help them if they went there because of football. But because of the rivalry, school spirit at both schools is still very sports oriented. Academically, there's a lot of cooperation, so that's nothing to get riled up about.

After surviving the Cal-Stanfurd rivalry, I ventured to San Diego for my master's degree. At the University of California at San Diego, school spirit seemed to be primarily reflected in the activity of buying sweatshirts with smiley faces and the school letters on them. I don't know what it is, but students appeared rather blase about the whole school pride issue, calmly oblivious to the manichaean battles that had obsessed Berkeley and Stanfurd undergrads.

I suppose not having a football team makes a great difference. And even if UCSD had a team, it would need a rival to make things really interesting - preferably a local one. But USD isn't any fun, and Cal State San Diego? Give me a break. USC is already paired up fighting tooth and nail with UCLA, and besides, a rivalry with USC would inflict upon San Diegans that ghastly fight song that the Trojan band plays incessantly.

Anyway, at UCSD it struck me that the lack of a nemesis translates to a lack of interest, sort of like post-Cold War politics. Or maybe it's all the sun. Down there with the warm breeze wafting through the palm trees, people are just too damn happy and relaxed to get worked up about such things.

What about school spirit at MIT? We clearly lack a distinguishable rival. I guess Harvard is always there up the road, but they have their Yale thing to get all worked up about. Furthermore, Harvard and MIT have different emphases and specialties, so it's hard to compare the two schools directly. I find it difficult to imagine us caring enough to call them Harvurd or something (although hey - that's kind of fun). One would expect school spirit to be diminished at a school without a clear rival, as I perceived at UCSD.

But instead I see that at MIT people have so much school spirit that they happily break into trigonometric cheers in the middle of bars, clearly identifying themselves as hopeless nerds, while running the risk of being taunted by people who just might not be doctoral candidates in engineering.

How is it that MIT students are so secure in their self-image, in the excellence of their institution? I guess the cheer, "It's all right, it's okay, you will work for us someday" says it all.